Devil's Teeth

Bookshelf: The Devil’s Teeth

The Devil’s Teeth – Susan Casey

Devil's Teeth
Devil's Teeth

It’s rare for me to take as complete and instant a dislike to the author of a book as I did in this case (Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame is the only other example I can summon to mind). Susan Casey is a magazine journalist who counts employment at O Magazine among her career highlights – but this isn’t the reason I took a dislike to her… Keep reading.

I suppose I am looking for a book about sharks that doesn’t exist. Briefly, here and there, this was that book. Casey describes the Farallon Islands, remote and hostile rocky outcrops some 50 kilometres from San Fransisco. Like our Seal Island in False Bay, the Farallones are home to many marine mammals and a large number of great white sharks (some of epic proportions).

Casey describes the birth of her obsession with the islands (she watched a TV show) and the sharks that call them home, as well as their history as a source of seabird eggs (they are an important nesting site). She recounts various visits she took to the islands, culminating in a long stay in 2003.

Casey’s ruminations about how dirty her hair was, what she packed for the trip to the islands, how clueless she is about boats, and how obsessed she – personally – is with white sharks are uninteresting, but her descriptions of the sharks themselves, the research being conducted with them, and the individuals – incredible to a man – conducting that research, are at times rewarding. A keen objectifier of men (like Elizabeth Gilbert, actually), Casey spends a lot of time describing the rugged good looks and well-defined musculature of the various researchers and scientists she encounters – really classy, and respectful of them as scientists and individuals rather than as eye candy. HA! I did wonder more than once if a continuation of this line of thought could explain how she managed to secure a stay on the islands despite them being officially closed to visitors…

Fascinating nuggets are, however, gleaned here and there. The predations at the Farallones generally do not involve the breaching we see at Seal Island, perhaps because the sluggish elephant seals living there do not require the same degree of exertion as frisky Cape fur seal pups do. The attacks mostly take place at high tide. The observations of Ron Elliott, a commercial diver who harvested sea urchins at the islands (the only one who dared) are fascinating – he’d see sharks on almost every dive he did, and hid from them under the rocks where necessary. Upon climing into the water, he’d duck straight under his little boat so as to avoid presenting an interesting silhouette from below.

On two occasions orcas killed a white shark at the island (in one case by holding the shark upside down until it drowned); after both predations, the other great whites vanished – just disappeared en masse. This is intriguing. Many marine mammals pass by – the islands are a popular whale watching location and up to 60 blue whales have been sighted at once. One of the researchers even became the first (and I think only) person to observe humpback whales copulating there. Apparently it takes two… Plus an assistant!

Something else I discovered here that I didn’t know is that the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, one of the foremost aquaria in the world, has had great white sharks on exhibit on several separate occasions, starting in 2004. They don’t keep the sharks indefinitely – they grow fast – but they’ve managed to keep five sharks mostly happy and healthy, before realeasing them (tagged) back into the wild. The reasons for release varied from increased size, increased aggression, to refusal to feed.

Ultimately, this book is an account of a tragedy caused by its author, who seems unaware of the extent of the damage she wrought, and hence unrepentant. She forced herself – there’s no other word – into a delicate web comprising the predators, prey, and the scientists who observed their interactions, and then tore down part of the web by her very presence. Because of her stay on the islands, Peter Pyle, the researcher in charge of the Shark Project on the Farralones, lost his job. Thanking him profusely in the acknowledgements doesn’t really cut it, especially after quoting Pyle elsewhere in her book as saying that he loved the Farallones, and being on the islands, “more than life.”

Aside from shutting down an entire shark research project singlehandedly and causing a ten year veteran of the project to lose his job, Casey also misplaces a borrowed sailboat and breaks the law repeatedly and with gusto. If I’d made such an utter fool of myself, I wouldn’t have written a book about it, but she glosses over her responsibility so thoroughly that I suppose some readers may fail to ascribe to her the blame she deserves.

Buy the book here if you’re South African, otherwise here. Actually, don’t buy it – this woman doesn’t deserve any support at all.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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